Saint David, or Dewi Sant, as he is known in the Welsh language, is the patron saint of Wales. He was a Celtic monk, abbot and bishop, who lived in the sixth century. During his life, he was the archbishop of Wales, and he was one of many early saints who helped to spread Christianity among the pagan Celtic tribes of western Britain.
Dewi was a very gentle person who lived a frugal life. It is claimed that he ate mostly bread and herbs – probably watercress, which was widely used at the time. Despite this supposedly meagre diet, it is reported that he was tall and physically strong.
Born near Capel Non (Non’s chapel) on the South-West Wales coast near the present city of Saint David, he was from a royal lineage. His father, Sant, was the son of Ceredig, who was prince of Ceredigion, a region in South-West Wales. His mother, Non, was the daughter of a local chieftain. Legend has it that Non was also a niece of King Arthur. Dewi was educated in a monastery called Hen Fynyw, his teacher being Paulinus, a blind monk. Dewi stayed there for some years before going forth with a party of followers on his missionary travels.
Dewi travelled far on his missionary journeys through Wales, where he established several churches. He also travelled to the south and west of England and Cornwall as well as Brittany. It is also possible that he visited Ireland. Two friends of his, Saints Padarn and Teilo, are said to have often accompanied him on his journeys, and they once went together on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to meet the Patriarch.
The saint is sometimes known, in Welsh, as ‘Dewi Ddyfrwr’ (David the Water Drinker) and, indeed, water was an important part of his life – he is said to have drunk nothing else. Sometimes, as a self-imposed penance, he would stand up to his neck in a lake of cold water, reciting Scripture. Little wonder, then, that some authors have seen Dewi as an early Puritan!
Perhaps the most well-known story regarding Dewi’s life is said to have taken place at the Synod of Llanddewi Brefi. They were to decide whether Dewi was to be Archbishop. A great crowd gathered at the synod, and when Dewi stood up to speak, one of the congregation shouted, ‘We won’t be able to see or hear him’. At that instant the ground rose till everyone could see and hear Dewi. Unsurprisingly, it was decided, very shortly afterwards, that Dewi would be the Archbishop.
Another best-known miracle is said to have taken place when he was preaching in the middle of a large crowd at the Synod of Brefi: the village of Llanddewi Brefi stands on the spot where the ground on which he stood is reputed to have risen up to form a small hill. A white dove, which became his emblem, was seen settling on his shoulder.
He founded a monastery at Glyn Rhosyn (Rose Vale) on the banks of the small river Alun where the cathedral city of St. David stands today. The monastic brotherhood that Dewi founded was very strict, the brothers having to work very hard besides praying and celebrating masses. They had to get up very early in the morning for prayers and afterwards work very hard to help maintain life at the monastery, cultivating the land and even pulling the plough. Many crafts were followed – beekeeping, in particular, was very important. The monks had to keep themselves fed as well as the many pilgrims and travellers who needed lodgings. They also had to feed and clothe the poor and needy in their neighbourhood.There are many stories regarding Dewi’s life. It is said that he once rose a youth from death, and milestones during his life were marked by the appearance of springs of water. These events are arguably more apocryphal than factual, but are so well known to Welsh-speaking schoolchildren that it is worth mentioning them here.
It is claimed that Dewi lived for over 100 years, and it is generally accepted that he died in 589. In about the year 550, David attended a synod where his eloquence impressed his fellow monks to such a degree that he was elected primate of the region. The episcopal see was moved to Mynyw, where he had his monastery, now called St. David’s. He ruled his diocese until he had reached a very old age. His last words to his monks and subjects were: “Arglwydi, vrodyr, a chwioryd, Bydwch lawen a chedwch ych ffyd a’ch cret, a gwnewch y petheu bychein a glywyssawch ac a welsawch gennyf i. A mynheu a gerdaf y fford yd aeth an tadeu idi”, which translates as, “Lords, brothers and sisters, Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed, and do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. And as for me, I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.”
‘Do the little things’ (‘Gwnewch y pethau bychain’) is today a very well-known phrase in Welsh, and has proved an inspiration to many. On a Tuesday, the first of March, in the year 589, the monastery is said to have been ‘filled with angels as Christ received his soul’.
Dewi’s body was buried in the grounds of his own monastery, where the Cathedral of St. David now stands. After his death, his influence spread far and wide – first through Britain, along what was left of the Roman roads, and by sea to Cornwall and Brittany.